by Nick Wood

NewCon Press


224pp/£11.99/April 2016

Azanian Bridges

Vincent Sammy

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Nick Wood’s novel Azanian Bridges is set in a modern day South Africa in which Apartheid was still the rule of the day and Nelson Mandela has long since died in prison on Robben Island. Focusing his story on Martin van Devanter, a white psychologist and one of his patients, Sibusiso Mchunu, a black college student who has found himself in a psych ward after witnessing a friend get killed during a demonstration.

While neither man views themselves as particularly political, Sibusiso and van Devanter are both going to become instrumental in the fall of the Apartheid system. Van Devanter and a friend of his have created an empathy enhancer, which van Devanter wants to test out on Sibusiso, despite being warned that clinically he cannot make use of the device. Sibusiso finds himself carried along by events, although never quite a pawn and he stands up to van Devanter’s experimentation.

Van Devanter hasn’t managed to keep his invention quite as secret as he would like and the powers that be in South Africa see it as a threat, or possibly a way of improving their interrogation techniques. In any event, they know that it can’t remain in van Devanter’s hands. While van Devanter is dealing with them Sibusiso is being broken out of the psychiatric ward by friends, or possibly just by revolutionaries.

Wood’s characterizations are complex. Van Devanter is a good man who cares about his patients, including Sibusiso. He has his own issues, both with his parents, his partner, and his ability to connect with women. He also lives a mostly with the privilege that came from being White in Apartheid South Africa. His fears are of losing his freedom and his way of life. Sibusiso doesn’t have the privilege van Devanter has, but he also fears for losing his much more prescribed freedom. He knows that any freedom he has is illusory and can be taken, just as his life can be taken, at any moment. His interactions with van Devanter, who is trying to help Sibusiso, are one of the few places Sibusiso can exert any power.

The book’s chapters alternate between the two characters. In the early chapters, they repeat their own interactions from opposing points of view, which serves to help bind the characters together. As the stakes grow higher for each man, however, their stories diverge , even if the chapters continue to parallel each other. Wood manages to handle his technique well and, although it is a little

While the alternate historical aspects of the book are well thought out with regard to the path a twenty-first century Apartheid South Africa would have, some of the foreign aspects are a little questionable, with the United States still being governed by a Barack Obama who is working with Osama bin Ladin to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, thirty-one years after the initial Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The focus of the novel is on the treatment of humans and how humans respond, and can overcome, racial adversity (or privilege) rather than the details of this historical record.

The novel is a first novel and, while the characters and themes are memorable, the specifics of the plot are not quite as striking, which means the reader is left with strong feelings about the characters and the arguments made in the book, even as Azanian Bridges itself doesn’t quite stick in the memory.

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